Rightsizing in Baltimore

Posted on: July 9th, 2013 by Special Contributor

By: Johns Hopkins

Editor’s note: “If a neighborhood is to survive, then it needs a community of people fighting for it.” Johns Hopkins’ observation in the following blog post neatly sums up the efforts of the contributors and people profiled in the summer issue of the Forum Journal, which focuses on preservation in cities. All of these individuals are figuring out how best to preserve the rich cultural heritage that is found in our nation’s urban communities in light of today’s challenging economic and social realities. The summer journal will be released next Monday.

HOPKINS west baltimore squares heritage walk

Heritage walk in West Baltimore. | Credit: Baltimore Heritage, Inc.

Baltimore often seems like an urban version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the sunny, Dr. Jekyll side, the city gained population last year for the first time in half a century; has a solid economy that among other things is supporting the simultaneous development of two biomedical parks; and has dozens of thriving and gorgeous historic neighborhoods that would make any city proud. But lurking a few neighborhoods away, or often just a few blocks away, is the more sinister, Mr. Hyde side of Baltimore. We have tens of thousands of vacant houses, dozens of neighborhoods (the vast majority of which are historic) where there are as many unoccupied houses as occupied ones, and communities where generations of disinvestment have spawned shocking levels of crime and violence.

It is no surprise, then, that rightsizing has come to Baltimore with full force. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, rightsizing has a rosy side that plans for smaller, but more vibrant neighborhoods, but also a darker side that calls for the demolition of massive numbers of historic properties. In Baltimore, our mayor has announced a plan to demolish 1,500 vacant houses in three years and has secured funding to clear the first 500 by the end of the year.

What is Baltimore’s preservation community doing about it? The short answer is all that we can to play a meaningful role in the revitalization side of the equation and in the demolition side. With our partners Place Economics, we have also formed the Historic Preservation and Rightsizing Network to pull together people active in this area. Below are three new programs and initiatives happening in Baltimore that occupy a tremendous amount of our time and keep us awake at night fretting over whether we are doing the right thing.

Friends of West Baltimore Squares

HOPKINS west baltimore squares future preservationists

Future preservationists. | Credit: Baltimore Heritage, Inc.

National Trust President Stephanie Meeks has challenged us to make preservation more relevant. In Baltimore, we think that means working to help revitalize disinvested historic neighborhoods. In that vein, Baltimore Heritage has formed a friends group for a cluster of historic public squares in an area of West Baltimore that has more than its fair share of challenges (it’s not a coincidence that the shows The Wire and Homicide were based on neighborhoods here). Rightsizing in these communities includes activating the squares and increasing public engagement. In a place where high homicide rates and a crumbling housing stock are the top priorities, preservation has had to wear a new hat. To take steps to save these historic neighborhoods (with an emphasis on neighborhood—not just a single building or row of buildings), we have tried to help community groups by recognizing their priorities, which may not necessarily be ours. Our Friends group has organized mulch giveaways for community gardeners, hosted stilt-walking workshops for kids in the squares, and this summer we received a small grant to buy movie equipment and a popcorn maker to show outdoor movies in the public squares.

I must admit that I have scratched my head a little that we, as a historic preservation group, are showing Shrek III and handing out bags of buttered popcorn, but I am reminded that 40 years ago our organization helped revitalize a historic waterfront neighborhood after beating back a highway proposal by organizing a “fun festival” that included doling out copious amounts of cheap beer. To survive, historic neighborhoods first need a community of people fighting for it.

Developers, Environmentalists, and Preservation People

In Baltimore, rightsizing also has sparked a long-overdue discussion among the development community, environmental advocates, and preservationists. The shared ground is trying to tackle the question of how to eliminate barriers that too often hinder new investment in older communities. This spring, the smart-growth organization 1000 Friends of Maryland put together a working group called Building a Better Baltimore that includes real estate developers, environmentalists, and Baltimore Heritage representatives. The group decided to tackle two initial concerns: rethinking storm water regulations that often impede investment in older urban areas and expanding the impact of historic tax credits. The group has met twice and is planning a storm water summit for the fall.

As with showing children’s movies in historic public parks, working on storm water issues at first may seem tangential to the mission of a historic preservation organization, but if anything, rightsizing has reminded us to keep our eyes focused on preserving neighborhoods and remaining agile enough to tackle the issues that matter even if they are outside of our comfort zone.

City Demolition Projects

HOPKINS community garden photo

West Baltimore Community Garden. | Credit: Baltimore Heritage, Inc.

Clearly the hardest part of rightsizing for us is the planned large-scale demolition of historic buildings. In Baltimore, the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development is taking the lead, most immediately by using $10 million it received as part of the national mortgage settlement to demolish 500 houses, almost all of them contributing properties in designated National Register historic districts.

After a year of squawking about having a seat at the table, this winter, Baltimore Heritage was invited to play a part in the process. With so much demolition pre-determined to take place, it was a tough decision whether or not to participate. Certainly we will be part of a process that will include losing hundreds of historic buildings. And as a preservation organization we had to take a big gulp. In years past, we stayed clear of getting involved in plans that included such large-scale demolition. This time, however, at least one thing is fundamentally different. Many of the row houses that are now on the chopping block are so severely deteriorated that even we, as die-hard preservationists, have to conclude they cannot be saved with any reasonable amount of investment. Twenty, thirty, forty years of abandonment have left them without hope and stranded them in neighborhoods where you cannot even give houses away. Time has not been on our side for these thousands of vacant and abandoned buildings.

The upside of participating in the rightsizing demolition process is two-fold. First, we hope to help steer a portion of the $10 million originally slated for demolition to programs that help new owners buy and rehab vacant buildings. Working with our state historic preservation office and local preservation commission, our goal is to redirect some of the funds to help save historic buildings in the communities that are being rightsized.

Additionally, although we know that we cannot prevent the planned widespread demolition, we hope that by participating as consulting party, we can steer it in a direction that avoids clearing the most significant historic properties. Through mitigation measures and otherwise, we are further working to ensure that the demolition that does occur makes sense as part of a larger plan toward strengthening these historic neighborhoods. It’s too soon to tell whether or how much of an impact we will have, but we think it’s worth the effort and the risks.

Johns Hopkins is the executive director of Baltimore Heritage, Inc. The organization has been a Preservation Leadership Forum member since 1990.

An affinity session with the Rightsizing Network will take place at the National Trust conference in Indianapolis. There will also be a panel discussion on preservation and rightsizing at the Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference in Philadelphia on September 11.